Wednesday, March 18, 2020

At last we’ve been shown the virus game plan. Boring

I grew up in the Great Depression. Well, not really, but there were times when it certainly felt like it. The Depression was my father’s favourite topic of breakfast conversation and I got to hear a lot about it, particularly the questionable behaviour of someone called Jack Lang.

It wasn’t until long after my father had been "promoted to Glory", as the Salvos say, I learnt from my sisters that the Depression had been his finest hour. In those terrible times, a generous government made thousands of unemployed men trudge from town to town to be eligible for "the susso" – a woefully inadequate sustenance allowance, often paid in kind.

Men moving around the backblocks of Queensland soon learnt to come to the back door of my father’s Salvation Army quarters, where the captain would go to quite extraordinary lengths to help them along their way.

Now, I’m not for a moment implying that what we’re about to go through as we cope with the coronavirus bears any comparison with the Depression, which lasted for most of the 1930s and drove the rate of unemployment to reach 20 or 30 per cent.

No, I’m just saying this crisis will turn our lives on their head for so much of this year that we’ll remember it for the rest of our lives and won’t fail to tell our kids about it in years to come.

It’s clear that, after a few weeks of unthinking panic and silliness, we’ve reached the business end of the epidemic as "community transmission" – spreading of the disease between people who had no known contact with a confirmed case or who had arrived from a badly affected country – begins in earnest and the authorities get progressively tougher in imposing "social distancing" – slowing the spread of the virus by keeping people apart.

This is a steep learning curve for everyone: politicians, medical experts and even all-knowing journalists. But the road map of where we’re headed, what it involves and roughly how long it will last – say, six months – is now apparent.

The authorities faced a choice between letting the contagion rip – getting it over quickly, but with an overwhelmed health system, serious cases going untreated and too many oldies and medically compromised people dying – or trying to slow the spread so the health system copes and deaths are minimised.

Unsurprisingly, they chose to "flatten the curve", using self-quarantine of people who may have the disease or do have a mild case, self-isolation (staying at home to avoid contact with others) and social distancing – banning large gatherings, restricting travel, maybe closing schools, encouraging people to work from home, and urging people to minimise their contact with others.

While slowing the spread reduces the number of deaths, it’s by no means certain it will reduce the number of people contracting the disease. The big price to be paid is prolonging the disruption to people’s daily lives and, hence, to the economy. Less paid work will be done, many will earn less income, less money will be spent, and unemployment and underemployment will rise.

A less obvious price is that the extraordinary lengths we will be going to to limit deaths will leave many people fearing the virus is a much greater risk to their health than it is. The great majority of people who get it will suffer no worse than a bout of flu. But the fear may be a good thing if it makes the hale and hearty more diligent in their hand-washing and avoidance of social contact.

Have you realised what this means for most of us? We’re about to go though a period of weeks or months of staying at home and rarely going out. This is obvious for the elderly and health-impaired, but will also apply to those who have to work from home, those casual workers whose shifts are cancelled, school and uni students attending classes online, and parents who can’t work because they have kids to mind (and shouldn’t be asking old grandparents to help out).

As I contemplate it for myself (I’ll soon be off on five weeks’ staycation), a word springs to mind, starting with b and ending in -ing. Social work academics are writing papers about "cabin fever" – fever in more ways than one.

It won’t be lost on a lot of people that the arrival of pandemics – this may be the worst, but it’s not the first and won’t be the last – is an unwelcome consequence of the globalisation of the world economy.

Against that, however, the digital revolution has made it easier for many screen-based workers to work from home and for students to view lectures. Teleconferencing is a reasonable substitute for face-to-face meetings and interstate business trips. The range of home entertainment is a lot wider and of better quality since the advent of such things as streaming video. You may not be able to attend football matches, but you can still watch them on telly.

Mobile phones make it much easier to co-ordinate with family members, and Facebook lets you keep up with friends. And not forgetting that e-commerce lets you keep spending. Which will be nice. But it doesn’t change the fact that "social distancing" is contrary to all our instincts as social animals.